Of shooters, slashers and swingers...
J.J Redick, Duke, vs. Salim Stoudamire, Arizona:
Sunday evening was a great chance to watch two of the best shooters in the country on the same channel (Fox Sports Net) in back-to-back games. This "matchup" has become especially intriguing considering the many statements that have been made recently in the press, for example Lute Olson's take on the issue: "They talk about the guy at Duke, but I'll put (Stoudamire) up against him anytime."
The first matchup featured Arizona and Oregon State, in Stoudamire's very last game on his home floor, the McKale Center. Stoudamire put on a marvelous show in his farewell game for the Arizona crowd and a national audience, scoring 31 points in 29 minutes on 9-14 shooting from behind the arc.
Many of Stoudemire's outside shots were downright ridiculous, especially at the end of the first half, when he spotted up twice from well behind the arc (once from close to half court). Off the dribble and off balance with his incredibly quick release and picture perfect stroke, Stoudemire both times hit nothing but net. Amazing stuff, indeed, and pretty hard to top. Stoudamire probably could have finished with even more points, but his shooting completely killed off Oregon State and halfway through the second half, he came out to a loud standing ovation and did not return. His nine three's broke Arizona's record for most deep shots made in a single game. Very impressive considering the type of shooters that have gone through Tucson; Mike Bibby, Steve Kerr, and Jason Terry just to name a few. Stoudamire's shooting heroics have finally landed himself a place in our 2005 mock, but the questions around his pro potential still abound, and the answers to them surely won't be found strictly in his outside stroke.
Redick and his Duke teammates came on next against Wake Forest and put on an equally impressive show. The junior started off by hitting his first six shots and ended up with a career high 38 points on 6-10 from three-point range in a huge win for Duke in terms of conference standings, NCAA tournament seeding and North Carolina bragging rights. Redick also managed to get to the line 15 times and nailed 14 of those. Redick did not look as versatile in terms of the degree of difficulty of the shots he took and made from behind the arc, but most people would tell you that that's not really a bad thing.
Redick also slashed his way to the hoop relentlessly and took Justin Gray out of the game completely by getting him into foul trouble. He has been silencing the critics (including us) and slowly moving up our 2006 mock draft since the season started. He now finds himself at the end of the 1st round, as he is showing that there is more to his game than just a sweet outside stroke.
Who won in this shooting duel? I'd have to call it a draw, unfortunately. We can only hope that these two incredible shooters meet up in the NCAA tournament and maybe even guard each other so we can settle this once and for all before Salim graduates.
Gabe Pruitt, PG, USC, and Nick Young, WG, USC
Sometimes it can come back to bite the scout that jumps out on a limb about a young, unproven player and his NBA chances. However, leaving caution to the wind, this dynamic freshman duo is NBA-bound someday. The veterans on this USC team gave up last season, and the freshman have slowly chipped away at their elders' playing time. The Trojans came up with a rare win saturday against a similarly reeling California program, and both Pruitt (19 pts, 6-12 FGs) and Young (15, 6-14 FGs, 6 reb) were big reasons why.
Pruitt, a 6'4" point guard, has been the more consistent of the two in '05. More of a scoring point right now, Pruitt has been playing off the ball quite a bit of late, where his biggest strength is a beautiful stroke. In Pruitt's last five games, over which he has averaged 19.5 ppg, he has shot 18-34 on 3's, and is hitting over 45% for the season. His size is going to help him out, but he has the athleticism and ball-handling ability of an NBA point. Moving up and down the floor, he looks a lot like the much more publicized Daniel Gibson of Texas. To improve his draft stock, Pruitt will need to get a bit stronger and continue to work on his floor general skills.
Young hasn't always been a consistent scoring threat, as his 7 Pac-10 games of 18+ points and 5 single-digit conference games will attest to, but make no mistake -- he's got all the tools of a very successful NBA wing. At 6'6, Young has top-notch athleticism, great body control, and a solid shot. His long arms allow him to be a factor on the glass, and he can put the ball on the floor fairly well. He will need to show more consistency with his stroke and at creating his own shot, but his athletic ability and knack to find the basket show legit first-round potential.
Curtis Stinson, PG, Iowa State
Iowa State is one of the hottest teams in the nation, winners of seven in a row. While the improved perimeter shooting of some of Iowa State's role players has been a major reason for the 'Clones shocking turnaround, Saturday's win at Kansas was all about Stinson. He finished with 29 of his team's 63 points on 10-23 shooting, and added seven rebounds. Stinson missed three crucial free throws near the end of regulation which allowed Kansas to come back and send the game into overtime, but he was unstoppable going to the basket in the extra session. Stinson scored all seven of ISU's OT points, including the game-winner -- one of his signature floaters in the lane with 5 seconds left.
The Cyclones use a two point guard attack, with fellow sophomore Will Blalock being the primary ball-handler. But Stinson was much more effective with the ball in his hands down the stretch on Saturday. His quick first step, good strength, expert body control, and relentless style of play allow him to attack the basket at will. Once he's by his defender, he will score, because of his ability to float the ball into the basket from just about anywhere. This quick release floater off the dribble is nearly impossible to block, and should be something he can use to score effectively with in the League.
Stinson's one glaring weakness is a lack of a set shot. He'll hit big 3's with a guy in his face, but seems to really have trouble when he gets an open look. Quicker guards will be able to play off of him, and take away the drive. However, this seems to be the only thing holding him up right now. Call Stinson a potential first-rounder at this point, pending how well he can firm up his shooting stroke between now and June. If the Cyclones keep it up and make the tourney, Stinson could explode up the draft board. Stinson's advanced age (he is a 22 year old sophomore) might convince him to come out this year already, but he needs to keep in mind the sheer quantity of excellent PG's in this draft class already.
Adam Morrison, WF, Gonzaga
At the end of 2004, we mentioned Morrison as a potential breakout candidate in our "5 to watch in '05" article. In fact he was #1 on the list. This was based on several dynamite early season performances, including huge outings against Georgia Tech and Oklahoma State. Morrison slumped a bit at the start of the WCC slate, as teams began sending extra help his direction instead of at the previously more highly regarded Rony Turiaf. However, Morrison is clearly starting to adjust to the extra attention, as 16+ points in six of his last seven games will attest. This culiminated with a career-best 28 points and the game winner against San Fransisco on Saturday.
Like has been said in the past, Morrison doesn't look like the guy who is going to lead a team on any level in scoring. He's very skinny, and not exactly fluid on the floor. However, his offensive game is probably among the most advanced of any player in the country. He can shoot the ball off the dribble, fading away, with a hand in his face, and in any number of other awkward sitautions. While his body and athleticism may remind some of Mike Dunleavy Jr., the way that Morrison can put the ball in the basket will remind you of a Nowitzki or Stojakovic.
The Gonzaga sophomore's defense will need to be worked on, as the instincts he shows on the offensive end of the floor just don't show up here. However, he can be a big time scorer in the League, and it looks like others are finally starting to take note. We'll continue to track his progress as always from behind the scenes.
Yes, it's true, sometimes size matters...
Brandon Bass, LSU, vs. David Lee, Florida:
There was a high profile SEC big man matchup in Baton Rouge on Saturday featuring two of the best power forwards in the country, and the two very entertaining players did not disappoint us even one bit.
David Lee has been excellent lately for the Gators, finally playing with the type of aggressiveness that has been missing from him for most of his NCAA career so far, and he was not afraid to take his team on his back down the stretch when it mattered most. Lee looks a lot more comfortable now in the high post and has been hitting the mid-range jumper at a fairly good clip. He is also using his excellent quickness and ball-handling skills to take his man off the dribble and, as usual, his ability to pass the ball was absolutely fantastic. Lee (and the whole Florida team for that matter) wasn't getting much love from the refs, but he still managed to finish the game with 21 points, six rebounds and five assists in 28 minutes, despite being plagued by foul trouble for most of the game. His draft stock has been up and down for most of his career, but a deep run in the tournament followed by a solid outing at the Chicago pre-draft camp might be able to push him into the first round.
Bass, on the other hand, was fantastic for LSU, showing off why he might just be the most versatile power forward in the NCAA at the moment. His perimeter skills are vastly improved this year, he has been taking and hitting three pointers, and his mid-range shot is almost automatic. Like Lee, Bass also showed very good skills off the dribble and he was extremely aggressive getting to the free throw line and knocking down his shots. He finished with 27 points (8-10 FG, 10-13 FT) and five rebounds after putting up 21, 17 and three blocks on Lawrence Roberts and Mississpi State three days prior.
Measuring out at 6-7 (but with a tremendous 7'2.5" wingspan) didn't help him out at all last year in Chicago after he surprisingly declared for the draft, but his excellent athletic ability (measured a 42 inch vertical leap at a workout in Miami) makes him a very intriguing prospect with his developing perimeter skills. Word out of Baton Rouge last year and this is that he is not happy at all with LSU's coaching staff (he'll have to take a number on that one), but it would probably be in his best interest to wait another year before he burns his final draft card, unless he's content being a second-round pick.
Charlie Villanueva, F, UConn
The 6-11, super-versatile sophomore had a fantastic week for himself in three games for UConn, capping it off with a marvelous performance on national television against Notre Dame, where he matched his career high with 25 points to go along with four rebounds, four blocks and three assists. This after putting up over 20 and 10 boards in his two previous games this week.
Villanueva showed some newly found aggression, playing excellent defense on Torin Francis and displaying an excellent array of all-around skills. It might be too quick to jump to conclusions, but it really looks like the light has finally come on for Villanueva lately. He looked about as confident as we've ever seen him against the Irish on Saturday, showcasing his versatility by stepping out and draining a three pointer to go along with a couple of mid-range jumpers. But to his credit, Villanueva always got back to what he does best and never forced the issue.
The Connecticut big's draft stock is highly dependent on who's being asked, but in a draft so devoid of talented NCAA big man who can actually play (Andrew Bogut aside), Villanueva is seeing his stock rise every single time he steps out on the court. It seems like Jim Calhoun has finally gotten Charlie to play the way his coach wants him to. Villanueva is establishing and holding position deep inside the paint, calling for the ball and finishing strong with his length and athleticism. With teammate Rashad Anderson out, Villanueva has been UConn's #1 option for the past few games, a favorite target of emerging point Marcus Williams (who came one rebound shy of a triple double), and he has silenced many of his critics with the way he's performed lately. Even Villanueva's man-to-man defense is looking better, thanks to the intensity and passion he is bringing. If Villanueva can keep this up for the rest of the season, it would be very hard to see him fall out of the lottery, if he decides to declare, of course. After the game, Villanueva announced that the Huskies will repeat as National Champions this year. You have to like that kind of confidence coming from a guy like Villanueva.
Nick Fazekas, F/C, Nevada
A week ago in this space, we talked about a big kid out in the desert plying his wares on unsuspecting schools across the mountain time zone. This week, that big kid got a big stage and took full advantage of his spotlight. Nick Fazekas, the 6-11 forward/center at Nevada, used a nationally televised Bracket Buster game against fellow NCAA upstart Vermont, which featured two stars of its own, to blow up big time.
The thin man in the middle dropped 31 in a crucial win for his Nevada team as they look to build a more solid tournament resume. Fazekas was especially big down the stretch, scoring off the baseline and helping the offense run inside-out, freeing up his teammates for easier hoops. Fazekas is not yet overpowering in the way that some similarly under-publicized big men at smaller schools can be (Juan Mendez or Andrew Bogut come to mind), but he's also only a sophomore. This shouldn't imply that Fazekas was not his team's most effective player in this contest, far from it, he was just not flashy. The rangey Fazekas put together a workmanlike 31 points, scoring on short jumpers, off set screens, from the paint and from the top of the key. He was particularly effective in the second half, where he used his extremely long reach and excellent court vision to keep the motion offense running smoothly as Nevada outscored Vermont 40-26 in the second frame. Two first-half three-pointers only added to Fazekas' haul in a game he may point to someday as the birth of his NBA dream.
Juan Mendez, F/C, Niagara
In a year of talented big men at off-the-radar locations, perhaps none has been as consistently stellar as Niagara's Juan Mendez. The all-time leading Canadian scorer in NCAA history -- surpassing such oustanding talents as Steve Nash and Rick Fox -- capped off his final home game at Niagara by dropping in a career-high 39 points in an overtime win over Canisius. Mendez, fourth in the country in scoring with over 23 a game, was superb in helping his Purple Eagles to their 17th win, and their 17th consecutive home win dating back to last season.
The barrel-chested Mendez went an eye-popping 17 of 18 from the line to go along with three blocks. At 6-8, 245 pounds, the forward also hit two three-pointers, showing that his talent is not limited in range. Mendez has hit 31 threes this season, at a 30% clip -- not outstanding, but not shabby either. The talented scorer has had seven 30-point games this season, remarkable on a team with at least two other legit scoring threats in Alvin Cruz and David Brooks.
While considered slightly undersized for a power forward and not quick enough for an NBA small forward, Mendez has work cut out for himself this summer. He has already been invited to Portsmouth and will try to get himself an invite to Chicago as well. Performing at a high level for four years means he's on the radar, even if his school and conference don't allow for weekly showcase games. Sometimes, all it takes to catch on is getting an invite and showing the right attitude and skills, and Mendez has surely earned a longer look with his outstanding play this season.
Randolph Morris, C, Kentucky
One thing about potential, it never announces its retirement. But for Kentucky frosh big man Randolph Morris, whose 12 first half points and 17 overall against reigning SEC Player of the Year Lawrence Roberts keyed a win at Rupp Arena Saturday, all that potential may finally be turning into production.
For the second straight game, the developing center showed why some felt he was at least a late first-round lock had he declared for the draft last season straight out of high school. Morris' soft touch extends to either edge of the free-throw line and he's learning to play big in the lane, eating up space and drawing fouls from interior defenders. Morris has at times been criticized by Kentucky fans for a perceived lack of intensity, but that was not on display Saturday, as the baby-faced big man scored on a variety of follows, putbacks and nifty pivot moves, looking engaged for all of his 19 minutes on the floor.
One sequence showed Morris' growth particularly well: offering a head-fake to the right, Morris spun left, splitting Roberts and 7'1" Marcus Campbell, and dropped in a short jumper. The former Atlanta McDonald's All-American did not possess the confidence and savvy earlier in the season to pull off such a move, often backing out or fading away from a double-team. NBA scouts notice such development, and certainly acknowledge that Morris performed so well within the flow of the structured Kentucky offense and against top-flight competition.
After leading the Wildcats in rebounding in the surprising their loss against South Carolina mid-week, Morris led the team in scoring on Saturday, perhaps announcing to the world his arrival. If Morris can become a legit scoring and rebounding threat in the paint, it will take a huge weight off coach Tubby Smith's shoulders, and would give Morris momentum heading into his sophomore campaign.
Yemi Nicholson, C, Denver
Every year there are a few NBA prospects who seemingly appear out of nowhere; often big guys without polish, but with immense potential. One name to keep an eye on as the year progresses is Denver junior Yemi Nicholson, a former music major at Fort Lewis before he transferred to U of Denver for hoops.
The 6-10, 240-pounder made sweet string music all night long against an overmatched New Mexico State team that simply had no answer for him. Shooting a robust 10-15 from the floor and a perfect 10-10 from the foul line, Nicholson put up 30 points for the second time this season against the Aggies, and added 13 rebounds for good measure. Nicholson has had a great season thus far, showing immense improvement from a year ago, upping his scoring average by a dozen points a game and amassing three blocks a contest as well. The Colorado native has had several sterling outings against better competition, a sure sign of a hungry talent, including 27 points and 18 boards against Kansas State and 22 and 13 against Wyoming.
Nicholson runs the fast break well, finishing teammates' misses and passes with dunks and bank shots. His game clearly needs work before any real talk of going pro should begin, but he's big and effective and he runs well and hits his free throws, so the chatter is certainly beginning.